by Lou Mancinelli
The Irish tradition in Philadelphia is so rich that in the 1800s more Irish lived here than in New York or Boston. Throughout that long history the Philadelphia traditional Irish music scene has grown just as strong.
“Ceili (pronounced KAY-lee) Drive: The Music of Irish Philadelphia” is a recent project conceived and compiled by Jeff Meade, a 30-plus year Chestnut Hill resident and former long-time journalist, that has brought together generations of Irish musicians, ranging in ages from 12 to 85, in various groupings to record traditional songs. Sisters sing with their brothers. Fathers sit in on tunes with their sons.
A CD release party for the album, whose title is a play on the words “Kelly Drive “ and named after the Gaelic word for party, will be held from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, June 7, at the Irish Center at the Commodore Barry Club, 6815 Emlen St.
Capturing and preserving Irish music played in the vibrant Delaware Valley Irish scene is the primary goal of the record. It was funded through the crowdsourcing site gofundme.com and raised $600 more than its $3,000 goal. Six of the songs were recorded at MilkBoy a Center City studio.
“Even if the CD is losing money for us, we consider it a success because we wanted to capture and feature the musical talent of many of the city’s heretofore unrecorded musicians,” said Meade, who developed the album with longtime colleague Denise Foley.
If you’ve been to almost any St. Patrick’s Day or Irish event in the past 15 years in Philadelphia, Sea Isle or Avalon you may be familiar with the band Blackthorn. Some of its members play on the record.
But you may not know accordion player Kevin McGillian. He has played in the area for decades and plays on the record with his sons. There are also the Boyces and the Brennans. There are also musicians under 17 who have competed on the world-class level at Irish festivals.
Meade was first exposed to the bustling local scene 15 years ago after he saw Irish Thunder, a bagpipe band play at an Irish festival. He eventually joined the band.
“One thing that dawned on me is most people with Irish heritage in the city have no idea what’s going on in Irish culture beyond getting drunk on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Meade.
In 2004 he and Foley started the blog Irish Philadelphia, based in Oreland, to spread more awareness about Irish culture. There they cover all things Irish, from literature and theater to Gaelic football and the Irish language.
Meade, 62, also plays drums on parts of the album as well as in the Philadelphia Emerald Society Pipe Band. He is a senior web editor for a major health care philanthropy foundation where he has worked for 11 years.
He was raised in a small town in New York and moved to Willow Grove in 1963. He graduated from Archbishop Wood High School in 1969, then enrolled in Montgomery County Community College. He credits the school with shaping him up academically. He earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism from Temple University in 1973.
After Temple he went on to work for many years at the award-winning Bucks County Courier Times and then to national magazines like Prevention, a preeminent health care publication. He and Foley were friends and colleagues for years before they launched the blog.
“There are so many families in traditional Irish music in Philadelphia,” said Meade, who married his fiancée Diane in 1981, the same year they moved to Chestnut Hill. The couple has one child.
Philadelphia’s Irish-American families date back hundreds of years when Irish immigrants accounted for almost one-third of General George Washington’s army.
James Logan, for whom Logan Square in Center City was named, was the Irish-born secretary of William Penn who built the historic Stenton mansion in East Germantown in 1726 in the Georgian- style architecture that was also wildly popular in Ireland at the time. It was situated on 500 acres and surrounded by vast gardens.
The Irish Center in Mt. Airy was founded in 1958 by two tavern keepers, Mickey Cavanaugh and Michael Scullion. It has hosted traditional Irish music for 55 years.
Meade says one might be surprised to discover how vibrant the local Irish scene is. Many of the dozens of monthly Irish Center events are infused with music played by superb and relatively unknown musicians.
“You go in there, and they’re just essentially giving it away,” he said.
For tickets to the release party visit ceilidriveparty.eventbrite.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 215-242-0209. For more information about Irish Philadelphia check out its Facebook page or look for it on Twitter @irishphilly.